Forty-five years ago, on 28 February 1975, at 8.46am, a train on the Northern Line’s Highbury branch ran at 40 miles an hour into platform 9 at its terminus, Moorgate. The train didn’t stop in the normal way, but continued at speed past the platform, across the sand drag, through the buffer and then slammed into the 5ft thick concrete wall at the end of the blind tunnel beyond. This was London Transport’s worst accident, with 43 fatalities and 74 injured.
Train crashes are a grisly but fascinating subject. There is heroism to be found among the human error, design fault or plain bad luck. The excellent safety record of rail travel is built on learning from accidents that have gone before, and Moorgate is no exception in that it led to lasting, positive changes. But there are some aspects of this particular accident that are anomalous.
The Highbury branch was itself an anomaly. A stub of a thing, it was built to accommodate main line trains and to connect to the rail network at Finsbury Park (as it does now), but in 1975 it was a shuttle of just over 2 miles, from Moorgate to Drayton Park and was served by smaller sized tube stock. In this crash, the small train cars had space in the large tunnel to ride under and over each other, possibly causing greater damage than would have occurred in a smaller tunnel: the 16 metre log front car was crushed to 6 metres, and the first 15 seats into just 60 cm. The heat rose to over 49 degrees and oxygen levels dropped to 16%. The conditions faced by the emergency services, and the amazing rescuers from the London Fire Brigade in particular, don’t bear thinking about. It was not until 4 March that the last body was removed from the wreckage. Despite this, engineers were able to establish through various tests beyond reasonable doubt that the accident had not been caused by mechanical fault – which leaves driver error as the almost certain cause. That’s where the mystery begins, because explaining the error is not straightforward.
There’s been much speculation about driver Leslie Newson’s state of mind. We know that he was a cautious train driver, that he had withdrawn some money to give to his daughter (which is consistent with this not being a suicide), that he didn’t really drink very much – and there was no evidence on the morning of the accident of his having drunk alcohol even though by the time his body was recovered it had decomposed enough for alcohol to be present in his blood. He’d driven his train for several rounds of the Moorgate-Drayton run that very morning, without incident or mishap. But he missed lots of cues that should have alerted him to imminent disaster, such as the sharp set of scissor points into the station. His hand was on the power handle at least until two seconds before the crash; he did not put his hands up to protect his face as his train hurtled into the blind tunnel. The inquest jury reached a verdict of accidental death.
A crash such as at Moorgate couldn’t happen on the London Underground today. There are automatic controls that will apply an emergency brake to any train that is travelling too fast in the entry to, or in, a terminus, and operating instructions have also changed. The experience of the rescue teams also informed the design of the Channel Tunnel. We may complain about modern trains, but our railways are safer than ever. Today, though, let’s remember the 43 who died at Moorgate, the 74 injured and the rescue teams who worked in conditions past describing, 45 years ago.
I have drawn heavily on the excellent book Moorgate: Anatomy of a Railway Disaster by Sally Holloway. Other books have also been written specifically about the disaster.
There’s been a comment on Twitter about the driver: ‘I always thought that he might have had an epileptic seizure or maybe he had a brain condition that wouldn’t have been known about in the 1970s. If it happened today it would probably be easier to work out the cause’
I wonder – one of the problems was that the impact of the crash meant that they were unable to carry out conclusive tests on Newson’s brain. So even with the huge progress in knowledge since then we might not have been able to find the exact cause.